Business-like, isn't he?



Business in Vancouver logo

    Zune debuts in Canada as a much improved iPod competitor

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver July 8-14, 2008; issue 976

    High Tech Office column

    In preparation for my own travels, this column has lately been looking at stuff that’s small and portable, designed to be easily toted about. Among the most commonplace small gadgets are music players. The category is dominated by Apple’s iPod, which accounts for more than 70% of sales.

    But the iPod’s dominance hasn’t meant that competition is nonexistent. Players from Creative, SanDisk, Sony and more are trying to gain market share at the iPod’s expense by offering more features, Windows media file format compatibility and (perhaps) a bit of a price break. Newly available in the Canadian market is Microsoft’s Zune line of players, launched locally in mid-June.

    As with Apple’s iPhone, Canadians were left out of the product release about a year and a half ago. Unlike the iPhone, however, Zune 1.0 received less than a rave response from both reviewers and consumers, building a modest market share of about 3% or so, more at the expense of other iPod competitors than from Apple.

    The new Zune product lineup, however, deserves better. New models, new colours, new styling and new software make this a more potent competitor to Apple’s powerhouse. Where the original release included only hard drive-based models (similar to the larger iPod Classics), the new lineup has added smaller, less expensive flash memory models to compete with Apple’s popular iPod Nanos. And while Zune 1.0 came in colours like a decidedly unsexy dark brown, the new models are much more stylish. They offer options of bright red or black (and a pink option on the smaller flash memory models only).

    The various Zune models carry pretty much the same pricing as iPods with the same size storage: $250 for the 80 gigabyte hard drive model and $140 and $190 for the smaller four-gigabyte and eight-gigabyte flash memory models. (No Zunes compete with Apple’s 160-gigabyte high capacity model or with the iPhone-like iPod Touch series.)

    Compared with its iPod Classic counterpart, the 80-gigabyte Zune offers a much larger colour screen, better quality headphones, a built-in FM radio tuner and WiFi sync. The latter feature lets users effortlessly connect their Zune to their computer to update music and more. (Unlike the WiFi in the iPod Touch, it can’t be used to browse the Web.) The WiFi allows Zune users to share songs with one another, though this feature will be less useful until there’s a critical mass of Zune owners.

    While Apple has graced its players with shiny metal backs, the Zune has a more practical scratch-free matte surface. Zune purchasers can customize the back with etched-on text and art. Microsoft has added work from six Canadian artists including Meomi (Vicki Wong & Michael Murphy), designers of the 2010 Olympics mascots, to the Zune Originals list.

    The software built into the new Zune models is colourful and easy to navigate and use, while offering all the features users expect in a media player. The Zune supports Windows Media and MP3 file formats, but not the copy-protected file formats from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

    Microsoft has updated its online Zune Marketplace, to try to compete better with iTunes, but due to unresolved licensing issues, the Marketplace is not yet available to Canadian customers.

    Microsoft hasn’t done as good a job putting its smaller models up against their iPod equivalents; while these Zunes also boast the FM tuner and WiFi features that the iPod Nanos lack, the baby Zunes lack the big screen and superior earbuds of their larger siblings.

    The Zune models now available in Canada are attractive and capable media players, offering more features for the money than comparable Apple iPods – at least if you’re running Windows; there’s no Zune support for non-Windows computers. As other iPod competitors have discovered, though, a good product with more features may not be enough to shake Apple’s media-player dominance.

    By the way, in BIV issue 973, I noted that the popular Pure Digital Flip pocket camcorder was not being sold in Canada; its Flip Video Ultra is now locally available for $160. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
Search WWW Search